The topic of race is usually controversial, and even more so when you throw in the complexities of cultural and language barriers. When Sam approached me with this article, I thought it was perfect for addressing the importance of having a cultural IQ when you’re learning Spanish and traveling in Latin America.
This is a guest post by Sam McKenzie, author of Buenos Aires Travel Guides: A Must-Do List for the Local Experience and What to Expect When You’re Black in Buenos Aires.
When I decided to quit my job and move to Buenos Aires for a year, I wondered what it was like to live in Argentina.
For most people, an international journey involves stepping out of your cultural comfort zone.
But I had other concerns too.
I wondered if landlords on Airbnb and Craigslist would rent to me.
I also wondered if little kids would point at me and if people would want to take pictures with me.
My Travel Anxieties Confirmed
While searching online for information about Buenos Aires, I came across several comments on a blog for Expats living in Argentina:
I lived in Buenos Aires with an African-American woman, and many times when we went out together at night the sidewalks of our neighborhood became a gauntlet of leers and jeers
I found racism to be very prevalent in Argentina, but it is something that you wouldn’t notice if you were not a member of a minority.
…even the white Brazilians don't like going to Buenos Aires because they are just racist.
“Why would anyone want to visit a country that takes pride in being ‘white-only' and diminishes the humanity of other human beings based solely on one's ethnicity, nationality and or color of one's skin???? That would be akin to a Jewish person visiting Germany in 1940…”
After reading these comments, I began questioning if going to Buenos Aires was a good idea.
It also didn’t help to read stories about how Argentina whited out its Black population.
Like many Black people, I wasn’t a stranger to or afraid of racism. But I really didn’t want to spend time and money traveling someplace only to experience discrimination.
Instead of letting anonymous blog comments dictate my travel decisions, I hopped on a plane to Buenos Aires to see for myself.
Now, having been to Buenos Aires, here's what I would say to those who commented:
My Black Experiences May Vary
We all know there is no universal Blackness experience
Even during the most atrocious times of oppression for Black people, there were varied experiences within the Black community.
While there are likely some general experiences Black people may have in Buenos Aires, my experiences and how I interpret them, may vary.
It is, as my dad used to tell me, “there are good people and bad people everywhere.” I expect to meet the good people too.
There Are People Like Me Everywhere
During my time in Buenos Aires, even though there were fewer of us, I did meet other Black tourists.
I’m not saying that every Black face abroad is an automatic friend because that is definitely not the case. But in my new friends, I saw reflections of myself.
We had several things in common: race, language, gender, travel, and more.
By immersing myself in a new culture, I actually met great people from my country, and I had more in common with them than I do most U.S. citizens.
In this case, less was more. By daring to go someplace as a “minority,” you may meet people with whom you have a majority of things in common.
I Think Globally
Yes, there were times in Buenos Aires when I was frustrated and angry as a Black person.
I grew tired of being stared at and having to define and explain myself.
For a while, I thought my experiences were unique to my being Black. But things got better when I started to think about my own blind spots and think globally.
I thought deeply about why people stare. And, I realized I do similar things to people too.
I realized that Argentines aren’t that different from everyone else, including me.
Yes, some reactions by Argentines are racist and ignorant, but some are just human curiosity.
When I stopped counting all the people staring at me, I realized that Argentines stared at my roommate too. Why? My former roommate, who is from London, not only looks like Brad Pitt, but he has lighter features than some Argentines. He too was obviously not from there.
It’s not that different from the experiences that some white students have at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Some of those interactions too stem from being fewer in number.
Indeed, some of my less than positive experiences in Buenos Aires happened because I am Black. But, as I think globally, those reactions weren’t always unique to Blackness, nor white people.
It’s Not Always Better in My Comfort Zone
I was in Buenos Aires when Eric Garner and Mike Brown were killed by police officers in the United States.
It was my friends from Buenos Aires who asked me, “Are you sure you want to go back? They are killing Black people there.”
Their question got me thinking about how I never worried about police interactions in Buenos Aires vs. in Baltimore.
Even after I returned to the United States, as protests raged across my homeland, it was those same Argentine friends who asked if I was okay.
They were dismayed and shocked by race relations in the United States. Sometimes, I am too. But Buenos Aires taught me – it’s not always “better” in my comfort zone.=
I am Better for Going, and So Are They
The last thing I’d say to the blog commenters is that I am better for going, and so are they.
I’m not talking about enduring hardships that made me stronger. I’m talking about an expansion of my views on race, culture, and societies.
I was in Buenos Aires long enough to live in three neighborhoods and make friends. I, as a Black American, drank the water and the wine. My journey to Buenos Aires is a part of my personal Black History.
What I’d Say Now to a Minority Traveler
To any person thinking about visiting a country where they will be in the minority, I say go!
Go, expecting a range of experiences.
Go, expecting to meet (good) people.
Go, expecting to find common ground with people.
Go, with a global mindset.
Go, knowing it’s not always better in your comfort zone.
And finally, go, expecting to be better.
Of course, I do think it’s wise for travelers to read up on the experiences of other travelers with a similar background to know what to expect and ease the culture shock a bit.
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